When Mark Farrell first arrived at Calvin Klein Cosmetics in 1998, he realized he was looking at a candidate for a serious makeover. But the subject wasn't a customer in need of some eyebrow shaping, a little contouring powder or a new color palette; rather, it was an order-picking process that had fallen sadly behind the times.
At that time, the company, now a subsidiary of Unilever Cosmetics International (UCI), was about to launch a new product line, Calvin Klein's color enhancing makeup and skin care products. Farrell, who had just been hired as the company's operations manager, knew that if he didn't do something fast, the 120,000-square-foot Mt. Olive, N.J., distribution center would almost certainly be overwhelmed. "When I started with UCI," he says, "we were picking these kinds of products manually, with paper." But paper wasn't going to cut it when orders for the new cosmetics started pouring in.
What turned things around in short order was a flashy "pick-to light" system from Acworth, Ga.-based Kingway Material Handling, which provided beacons mounted in the storage racks to direct the order picking. In a pick-to-light operation, a computer electronically reads the order pick tickets, determines the best picking sequence and transmits signals to lights on the storage racks. Those flashing lights then guide workers to the items to be picked and indicate the quantity needed. Once the items have been selected, the order picker presses a button so that the computer can verify that the order was picked correctly.
Kingway's system, called Computer Assisted Picking System (CAPS), is designed specifically for operations like UCI's that require split-case—as opposed to full-case—picking of medium-and fast moving items. In recent years, customers like the Dillards and Saks Fifth Avenue department store chains have stepped up the frequency of t heir orders and begun ordering smaller quantities than they did in the past. Today, split-case orders make up almost three-quarters of UCI's domestic order volume.
That only makes the DC manager's job harder. Picking split-case orders accurately requires more time and more labor than picking full cases. Accuracy is an issue too. In the cosmetics business, product packaging for different stock-keeping units tends to be similar, making it tough to distinguish one from the next and making it all too easy for pickers to select the wrong item.
A pick-to-light system addresses those problems: UCI reports that its picking accuracy is now greater than 99.99 percent, provided that the pick locations are replenished promptly and correctly. Productivity has soared, too. The initial implementation of CAPS doubled picking productivity, the cosmetics company reports, and enhancements made in 2000 resulted in another 50-percent improvement. Today, says Farrell, "there's never idle time for the pickers. They're always productive. But without the pick-to-light system, I don't know how we'd do it."
There's no question that CAPS makes workers' lives easier: Since the pick display is mounted and stationary, the picker doesn't have to carry a piece of paper, pencil, RF terminal or other data-collection equipment. Pickers quickly get into the rhythm of identifying which pick-faces contain the items needed for the next order, picking the correct quantity, and pushing the display button to indicate the item has been picked.
Errors are down, too. "We don't see the number of picking errors that we did before because the systemen ables pickers to stay focused on the product and quantity they need to pick," says Farrell. "Under the old sys tem, the pickers had to carry pick slips, drop their eyes to read them, and then l ook up again at the product; it was easy to make mistakes. Now, with the pick-to-light system, pickers can use both hands for order selection."
Not only has CAPS reduced SKU picking errors, but it has made quantity picking errors a thing of the past. CAPS passes each order over an inmotion scale that can determine the expected weight for the designated quantity of items for each order. If the scale detects a weight discrepancy outside of the allowed tolerance, the system kicks the order to a side conveyor for auditing.
"We did a study with our pick-to-light system,and whenever a box is kicked out it's almost always a case error," says Kevin Whalen, a system engineer at UCI. "We never have SKU substitutions with the pick-to-light system."
Of course, it's one thing to design a system that handles a reasonably predictable workload and quite another to set something up that can accommodate wide fluctuations in activity. UCI says CAPS has proved both flexible and scalable. When ever UCI has run up against a change in distribution requirements, Kingway has been able to modify CAPS to meet the challenge. For example, when the Mt. Olive DC began to stock more SKUs, forcing the company to start using all available pick locations, the facility encountered a problem with the pick locations nearest the ground. In the typical pick-to-light configuration, the light display is mounted below the corresponding pick-face. But with this configuration, the display for the floor locations would be close to the pickers' feet and leave the lights exposed to damage.
In a project dubbed the "color initiative" because it dealt with Klein's color-enhancing line of cosmetics, Kingway devised a way to mount two sets of light displays on one shelf about waist-high. The two sets of light displays were then individually color-coded to avoid confusion: red lights for product to be picked above the display, green lights for item s below. Without this modification, UCI would have been forced to abandon the pick locations at the pickers' feet.
Kingway has helped UCI out in other ways as well. Three years ago, the vendor scaled down UCI's pick displays from the 73/4 inch standard to 31/2 inches, enabling UCI to increase the number of pick locations per shelf from six to 12, doubling the number of picks per aisle.
"They wanted to set up an individual pick line for what they had forecast to be fast-moving, very small products," says Ralph Henderson, national sales manager for Kingway. "The challenge was the high density; they needed to put 10 items across in a carton shelf flow rack. In the past we couldn't do that because the electronic components were too big. So we redesigned that piece of hardware to accommodate their request."
As for the system's inner workings, the CAPS software resides on a Unix server that is interfaced with UCI's Trendsetter warehouse management system (WMS), which was developed by Computer Task Group's Melbourne, Fla.-based logistics division. With help from the WMS, CAPS is able to establish multiple pick locations for a single SKU when needed. This feature is especially helpful during a new product launch when demand for an item can be extremely high. Because it has a choice of pick locations for a single item across several zones,CAPS is able to balance the workload for picking that item. When an order is dropped, CAPS receives a message telling it the best location from which to pick the product in order to avoid congestion at a single pick location.
Time and temps
Because CAPS requires little training, it's an easy matter for the Mt. Olive DC to bring in temporary workers during peak periods."Other UCI DCs that don't use a pick-to-light system spend valuable time bringing temps up to speed," says UCI's Len Westerman, former project manager for CAPS. "We can bring in temps and not miss a beat."
The CAPS setup even helps UCI maintain package integrity. In the cosmetics industry, image and packaging are everything. If a box is even slightly crushed, consumers won't buy it. According to Farrell, other material handling shelving solutions - like A-frames - that facilitate picking productivity but require stacking of product don't measure up to pick-to-light solutions when it comes to ensuring package integrity.
"We're very conscious of our packaging," says Farrell. "You simply should not dispense fragrances and some cosmetics through an A-frame, which I've seen companies try to do, because you risk damage to the packaging. Pick-tolight is the best solution for our products."